Why couldn't we all just get along?
That's what President Trump wants to know about the Civil War. In an interview with the Washington Examiner's Salena Zito, our president-historian posits that the war might not have happened if only Andrew Jackson had still been around. The whole thing apparently could have been avoided if only we had a bona fide negotiator — someone more up to the task than Low Energy Abe Lincoln.
Here's the exchange, via Sirius XM's P.O.T.U.S.:
TRUMP: [Jackson] was a swashbuckler. But when his wife died, did you know he visited her grave every day? I visited her grave actually, because I was in Tennessee.
ZITO: Oh, that's right. You were in Tennessee.
TRUMP: And it was amazing. The people of Tennessee are amazing people. They love Andrew Jackson. They love Andrew Jackson in Tennessee.
ZITO: Yeah, he's a fascinating...
TRUMP: I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn't have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. And he was really angry that -- he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, “There's no reason for this.” People don't realize, you know, the Civil War — if you think about it, why? People don't ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?
One glaring issue here: Jackson wasn't really angry about what was happening with the Civil War, because he died more than a decade (1845) before it started (1861). (Jackson in 1832 and 1833 oversaw the Nullification Crisis, in which Jackson used the threat of military force to make South Carolina pay tariffs. The situation was eventually resolved but is viewed as a precursor to the Civil War.)
But that small matter aside, this actually sounds pretty familiar for Trump. Just last week, in an interview with Reuters, Trump suggested there was really no reason for the Israelis and the Palestinians to have been fighting for all these decades.
“I want to see peace with Israel and the Palestinians,” Trump said. “There is no reason there's not peace between Israel and the Palestinians — none whatsoever. So we're looking at that, and we're also looking at the potential of going to Saudi Arabia.”
No reason whatsoever! You know, besides the whole claim-to-the-very-same-holy-land thing. Minor details.
What's remarkable about this language is that it sounds like a lefty pacifist, and Trump is at the very same time talking about the prospect of a “major, major conflict” with North Korea. Apparently the Civil War and the long-standing Middle East conflict have just been lacking in diplomacy; North Korea may be beyond that.
Historians with more academic experience than Trump have indeed asked this question about the Civil War often. It's a hugely difficult one to answer, a century-and-a-half later. And to say it with the certainty Trump does — “you wouldn't have had the Civil War” with Andrew Jackson — is just foolhardy.
It's also a question that unpacks all kinds of issues with slavery. It's generally assumed that a deal to avert the Civil War would have included concessions to Southern states having to do with their right to own slaves — the central dispute of the Civil War. Is Trump saying he would have been okay with a more partial or gradual phasing out of slavery? Was there really a deal to be cut on that front? Or does he think Jackson, a slave owner himself, would have convinced the South to abandon slavery immediately, somehow?
(For a taste of Jackson's cruel attitude toward slaves, see here from the Retropolis team.)
It's also a highly questionable statement in the context of Trump's own foreign policy. If the United States does have to get involved in a foreign conflict, Trump is opening himself up to suggestions that such conflicts could have been avoided if only he were a stronger negotiator. If Middle East peace isn't attained by the time he leaves office, it will apparently be because he and adviser Jared Kushner simply weren't Andrew Jackson.
But mostly it's just a completely bizarre claim that, once again, suggests a president who speaks loudly and confidently about things he simply doesn't understand.
Update: Trump clarified Monday night that he didn't actually think Jackson was alive during the Civil War, but he stood by his larger contention that Jackson somehow would have prevented it.
President Andrew Jackson, who died 16 years before the Civil War started, saw it coming and was angry. Would never have let it happen!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 2, 2017